Over the past six months, mySociety has been working on a project so sensitive that we even referred to it by codename when talking about it internally.
That might seem a little over the top, until you realise that we were partnering with asl19.org, an organisation working — for their own safety — out of Canada, with the mission of helping Iranian citizens to assert their rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
Ironically, this level of secrecy was necessary in the name of providing citizens with a platform for openness and transparency: we were working on a website, based on our WriteInPublic software, that encourages Iranian citizens to ask questions of their MPs. The project would enable Iranian citizens to pose their questions directly, online and in public, and anonymously.
Such a concept has never before seen in Iran, where there is a culture of heavy censorship, clampdowns on free speech, and online surveillance — so there was a real risk of personal endangerment for those involved.
Writing in Public
Here in the UK, mySociety runs WriteToThem, a service which allows citizens to contact their elected representatives quickly and simply.
Messages sent through WriteToThem are private, and we’re sure that’s most appropriate for our users. Often people are requesting help with personal problems, or informing representatives how they would like them to vote — either way, messages usually deal with matters that people tend to keep to themselves.
But there’s certainly an argument for putting some conversations between citizens and their representatives in public. Imagine, for example, asking a councillor what had happened to funds that had been allocated to a project that never came to light; or spotting what appeared to be a falsehood in an MP’s statement, and being able to ask them to justify it with facts.
If such conversations are carried out online, they create a permanent public record that everyone can access.
That’s why we created the WriteInPublic software, building atop the WriteIt software created by the Chilean Civic Tech group Ciudadano Intelligente (also known as FCI).
As a side note — if you have the contact details of your politicians, or can find them on our data project EveryPolitician, it’s extremely simple to set up your own WriteInPublic site, with no coding required.
Up and running
In fact, Asl19 say that the most challenging part of the project wasn’t something technical at all. To their surprise, it proved very difficult to locate email addresses for Iran’s members of Parliament. While most MPs have their own websites, they tend to use web forms rather than publish an email address.
That challenge was eventually overcome with help from other organisations. Asl19 collected the emails, which they shared with us. We added them to EveryPolitician’s data, which WriteInPublic uses.
The site is now live and people have sent over 400 messages. As a taste of how it’s being used, one citizen is requesting help with legal obstacles to getting medical treatment, and others, encouraged by an activist group, are asking that their MPs vote for a forthcoming bill which will give protection to those with disabilities.
And, best of all, MPs are responding — well, there are 33 responses thus far. So will the project blossom, becoming an active forum for open debate between citizens and their government?
It’s early days yet, but we hope that this project will provide a groundbreaking space for open debate in Iran.
We were glad to see this tweet back in July, when @adebradley identified WriteToThem as the place to go for information on how to write to your MP. We do try to make that process as easy as possible, so it was a fair assumption that we’d have such a template1.
But in fact, it was also a mistaken assumption, although we do have some more general advice in our FAQs. Basically, we offer lots of help on how to use our service, but we assume that the user can manage perfectly well once they’ve got to the ‘compose’ screen.
So I did what I always do when a user points out a ‘nice to have’ feature for one of our sites: I ticketed it on Github, our issue-tracking system. And then, when I got round to it, I sat down and did some thinking, and read some other websites which offer advice on writing to your MP.
And then I created a template to show people how to compose a letter that would be clear, readable, and likely to get a result.
As I was doing so, something felt wrong.
Firstly: who was going to visit this template? Even if we linked to it from the FAQs, would anyone ever find it? We know (without having to check our analytics, merely from the kind of messages we often get in our support mail) that the FAQs are not universally read. They’re more widely read since we moved the ‘Help’ link to the top right of every page, but all the same, it seems many users would rather drop us a line than find the answer on an FAQs page.
Then secondly: my template began to feel very patronising. Here was I, someone whose job is copywriting, handing out tips to… well, who? Presumably, our more educated, literate, eloquent users were not staring at a blank screen wondering how to begin a message to their MPs.
No: the people who need help writing to their MPs are going to be people who find it hard to express themselves in writing, and probably have never contacted their representatives before. And they are also the people least likely to wade through my sanctimonious examples and admonishments about what kind of language to use.
So, what now?
I took the issue to my colleagues, who were very helpful in sorting through this thinking. One of them led me to this link, which underscored the uneasiness over whether anyone ever reads FAQs, with wisdom like:
FAQs are convenient for writers […] But they’re more work for readers.
And between us, we reached the conclusion that the problem of people not knowing what, or how, to write to an MP wasn’t going to be solved by copywriting after all: if it was going to be solved at all, it was going to be with design and development.
If we were really going to help our users, it’d have to be right there on the page, at the moment when they get stuck.
Just as FixMyStreet gives discreet tips about what kind of content is appropriate in a report, WriteToThem might also guide a user to start with a clear statement about what the writer wants or needs, and to follow up with concise details. Or it might detect bad language and alert the user that their message is likely to disappear into an MPs’ anti-abuse filter. Maybe we could have an optional template within the ‘compose’ box which could be toggled on or off.
We haven’t got any further than that yet, and we promise not to build the 21st century equivalent of Clippy — but what started with a tweet may end up as some in-browser guidelines.
1 It’s probably worth clarifying that, when we talk about templates for letters to MPs, we are not talking about the sending of identikit messages – rather, we mean guides as to what sort of content to include. We have always, and will always, encourage users to write in their own words, and block mass messages from those who don’t. Here’s why.
If you’ve used a mySociety website and made a difference, large or small, we’d love to interview you.
A few weeks ago, we heard how Open Data Consultant Gavin Chait used WhatDoTheyKnow to help people setting up businesses .
But you don’t need to be a professional to have achieved something with our sites. We want to know what you’re doing with WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem — or any of our other web tools.
Have you managed to solve a persistent problem in your community by reporting it via FixMyStreet? Used data from TheyWorkForYou to inform a campaign? Or maybe you’ve put WriteToThem on your website and rallied people to contact their MP about something important.
Whatever it is, big or small, we want to hear about it. Please do let us — and the world — know what you’ve achieved with mySociety’s sites.
Ready? Click here to send us a couple of sentences about what you’ve achieved, and if we think we can feature your story, we’ll follow up with an email interview.
— mysociety (@mysociety) June 27, 2016
That’s the tweet we put out on Monday, after a few days of the fastest-moving politics the UK had seen in years. Little did we know that there was plenty more to come.
And it’s true. Everyone is talking politics — in the street, in the pub, on Facebook. Everyone wants information; everyone wants to express their opinions: which means that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem are pretty useful right now.
This has been an interesting week for us here at mySociety. As well as engaging in the same scrolling through fast-changing news stories as the rest of the nation, we’ve been dashing to make a few changes to our sites.
In general, our working methods favour considered actions. We ticket ideas, we discuss them, we prioritise and schedule them, we peer review them, and then they go live. It’s an excellent system for ensuring that work is both necessary and robust. It’s not quite so ideal for working on a new feature you need, like, yesterday, so this has been a change of pace for us.
Information is key
Here’s our first significant addition. Before you email your MP on matters concerning Brexit, it’s useful to know where they stand, so we quickly created an infobox for MPs’ pages on TheyWorkForYou (based on data from the BBC):
Neither of our parliamentary sites needed structural changes: fortunately, they are built robustly and hosted on servers which cope with increased visitor numbers when they occur.
And they are occurring. In a week that has seen the referendum, the resignation of the Prime Minister, mass shadow cabinet resignations, and Conservative leadership nominees, you have had plenty to research and plenty to write to your representatives about.
Here’s what visitor numbers for TheyWorkForYou look like — five times the usual traffic:
And six times as much as usual for WriteToThem:
Increased traffic is no problem (quite the contrary; we love it!), but there were some things that needed our attention. More users means more user support, so we’ve spent more time than usual answering questions about who we are, how we generate our data, what to do if a confirmation email doesn’t arrive, and so on.
Oh, and about that data:
All these resignations- will nobody think of the people who maintain parliamentary monitoring websites?
— Myf Nixon (@mockduck) June 27, 2016
Lots of what’s published on TheyWorkForYou updates automatically, but not necessarily immediately. Parliamentary roles, for example, are only scheduled to update weekly.
That doesn’t allow for the rate of resignations and replacements that we’ve seen in the shadow cabinet this week, so our developers have had to go in and manually set the update code running.
We wanted to remind people that TheyWorkForYou is a great place to research the facts about those standing in a leadership contest. In particular, our voting record pages set out clearly and simply what each MP’s stance is on key issues.
So we’ve been tweeting and Facebooking reminders like this:
At times, the news moved too fast for us to keep up:
Oops! Meanwhile, we also have another useful source of information: the Conservative party speeches that were removed from the internet in 2013 and which we republished on our SayIt platform:
We’re working on improving the way that TheyWorkForYou pages look when you share them on Facebook and Twitter, which seems sensible given that they are being shared so much right now.
If you’ve used WriteToThem, you’ll know that two weeks after you submit a message to your MP, we send a follow-up questionnaire to check whether you received a response.
Each year, we collate that data to see how MPs are doing at responding to constituents’ mails*, and we publish the results. (This year, we waited a bit longer than usual so that we could cover a full year since the general election.)
They’re now live, so you can go and check exactly how your own MP did — just enter your postcode.
Some interesting stats
- Because we’ve been running these figures since 2005 (with a gap between 2008-13), we can make some comparisons. We’re disappointed to see that the responsiveness rate of MPs has been steadily declining. In 2005, 63% of respondents indicated that they’d had a reply; this year, that’s down to 50%.
- Before we analysed the data, we thought that new MPs, elected in 2015, would perhaps perform better than the jaded incumbents. Not so: on average ‘old’ MPs responded to 53.07% of constituents’ messages, while the newly-elected managed only 46.10%. One new MP, Marcus Fysh, MP for Yeovil, came in at 635 out of the 642 MPs eligible for inclusion.
- Receiving more mail doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll perform poorly. Notable in this respect is Gerald Kaufman, who managed a 79% responsiveness rate despite having the second largest postbag.
- And being in the public eye doesn’t necessarily impact an MP’s responsiveness: Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn performed poorly, but have done so in prior years, too. Equally, we suppose it follows that a poor responsiveness level doesn’t necessarily impact on electoral success.
- We were curious to know whether there’s a gender divide when it comes to responsiveness. There is, but it’s very slight: on average male MPs responded to 52% of correspondence; female MPs to 50%.
- And another thing we’ve been asked about, sometimes by MPs themselves. There is no significant relationship between parliamentary constituency size and responsiveness. In other words, having more people in a constituency does not automatically mean that the MP is a poor responder.
Anyway, enough of this — go and check how your MP did, and then tell everyone else to do the same.
*This needs a caveat. Our data only covers messages sent via WriteToThem, and, furthermore, only those messages where users completed the questionnaire. You can see the full methodology on the rankings page.
WriteToThem is our service that helps people write to their elected representatives, quickly and easily.
People running a campaign often send their supporters to WriteToThem and ask them to contact their MP. But it’s always easy to lose people between one website and the next: you’ll get far better results if you can send your users right in to the message-writing process.
Fortunately, the WriteToThem embeddable tool lets you do just that. It’s free, and available to any campaign that wants to use it. We recently came across a great example of how this tool has been used by Stepchange, the debt charity, so we wrote it up in a case study.
If you’re wondering whether this tool might work for your own campaign, you can read their experience here.
It’s around this time of year that we normally publish our responsiveness statistics on WriteToThem. However, if you’ve been looking forward to seeing your MP’s ranking, we’re afraid you’ll have to wait a little longer.
Two weeks after you use WriteToThem to contact a representative, we send you an automated email to check whether or not you received a response. The data gathered by these questionnaires gives us a snapshot of how well the site is working for its users; it also allows us to highlight which MPs, which parties, and which parliamentary bodies do the best and worst at responding to constituents’ messages.
We’ve habitually analysed a calendar year of responses, January to December. Last year, though, was an election year, meaning that several MPs were active up until May, and then several new MPs took their seats in the new Parliament. So we’re going to run the data in June, looking at May 2015 to May 2016, followed by a four-week period to ensure we’ve received all the questionnaires.
Now, in theory, it shouldn’t matter too much, because we rank MPs by the percentage of mail sent through WriteToThem that they respond to (or more accurately, that our users tell us they have responded to). An MP may have responded to 100% of all their mail and then been voted out; their successor may then respond to 10% of their mail: both MPs would be ranked accordingly.
In fact, that’s how we did it for 2005, the first year for which we published WriteToThem rankings, and also an election year*.
But shifting the date like this means that the data will be less confusing. It’ll let us see how every current MP has performed, in terms of responsiveness, across a full year.
Of course, one side effect of this is that if you’re an MP and you want to be top of the pops, you have an extra five months in which to boost your score… so, on your marks, time to get writing!
*2010 fell within a four-year period during which we didn’t publish rankings.
Can you donate a few pounds toward the running of our UK sites?
You are the lifeblood of these sites: you make the reports that go off to the council; pen the letters to your representatives, request the information that our public authorities hold.
Today, we’re asking for a little more. When you visit one of our UK sites, you may notice a banner asking for a donation.
That’s because, as well as relying on your usage, these sites rely on your contributions to keep them running. In fact, our overheads are substantial: your donations help fund servers, maintenance, development, user support and all the other costs that come with running popular services and large archives.
If you’ve benefited from one of our sites, or you are glad that they are around for others, please consider setting up a regular contribution of a few pounds a month, or making a one-off donation. It will be very much appreciated.
How do you know when Parliament is going to be debating the things you care about? One way is to use TheyWorkForYou—you can set it up to send you handy reminders ahead of time.
On the agenda
The legalisation of cannabis is one of those topics that people have strong opinions about, and we’ve noticed a few tweets where people are saying that they’ve used WriteToThem.com to share their views with their MPs, ahead of today’s Westminster Hall debate on the matter.
Of course, you can share your thoughts on any topic with your MP, at any time. Doing so just before a debate is useful, though, as it means your representative is more likely to take your views into consideration before voting or speaking.
TheyWorkForYou.com, our site that covers the UK’s parliaments, actually makes it pretty easy to time your messages correctly. As well as publishing everything spoken in Parliament, it also shows upcoming business.
More than that, you can subscribe to any key word or phrase within the upcoming business section, and we’ll send you an email whenever it arises. So, whether you care deeply about cannabis, or your interests lie in another topic all together, you’ll know when a debate is scheduled.
And then you can get straight onto WriteToThem to write your message.
Here’s how to set up your ‘future business’ alert:
1. Go to the future business page on TheyWorkForYou.
2. Enter your chosen word or phrase in the search box to the right (titled Search upcoming business, or set up a future business email alert)
3. You’ll be taken to a page showing any future business containing your keyword. On the right of that page you’ll see a box like this:
Notice the small text: (or just forests in Future Business). Click on this if you’d like to receive results only for forthcoming debates.
4. You’ll be asked to confirm what you want:
5. Click ‘subscribe’ and you’ll be asked to input your email address (unless you are already logged in). Check your email to confirm your address and you’re done — all ready to fire off an email to your MP next time something important is on the horizon.
We received a tweet this morning wondering how many emails there had been to MPs on the subject of the ‘Refugees Welcome’ campaign, and whether WriteToThem, our contact-a-politician website, might have some relevant data.
Even if we could, WriteToThem is a completely non-partisan service, and users may be writing on either side of an issue.
We do use Google Analytics, which collects entirely anonymous statistics on how many people visit the site, how long they stay on it, etc. There is one clear indication that the site is being used more than usual: user numbers on Thursday and Friday of last week were about 5 or 6 times higher than the norm. There was a dip at the weekend — there generally is — and numbers have continued to climb on Monday and today.
Google Analytics also allows us to see which websites have referred people to our site. Over this period, it seems it was mostly Facebook and the petitions site Avaaz.
With most websites, you can regard visitor numbers as a pretty good indication of your success — if they’re going up, then at least something’s right.
With WriteToThem though, user numbers regularly fluctuate so wildly that you could be fooled into thinking we’re on the brink of disaster, or the brink of world domination, from one week to the next.
In the normal way of things, there seems to be a baseline at which the UK populace will toddle along. A small percentage of us will write to our politicians whenever we have an opinion that we want to express, but most of us are content with a few acerbic Facebook updates or heated discussions down the pub.
Then, now and then, an issue comes along which grips the nation. This week, that would indeed appear to be the issue of refugees.
Of course, we’re always glad to see the site used, and we hope that people who are referred to it because of an issue they care about will also remember it’s there whenever they need to contact their representatives in the future.
Incidentally, if you are running any kind of campaign and you would like to harness WriteToThem’s functionality on your own site, don’t forget that we’ve written a guide to doing just that.